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Exploration

Russians Unveil Rassvet

March 26th, 2010

From Universe Today

Russian space managers unveiled a science beauty today (March 25) in Florida, namely the ‘Rassvet’ research room which serves as Russia’s newest contribution to the International Space Station. Although ‘Rassvet’ was built entirely in Russia, the module is hitching a ride aboard the American Space Shuttle Atlantis as the primary cargo for the STS 132 station assembly mission slated to blast off soon in May 2010. ‘Rassvet’ translates as ‘Dawn’.

I was quite fortunate to inspect ‘Rassvet’ up close today during a press briefing and photo op inside the clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility in Port Canaveral, FL and also speak with the top Russian space officials from RSC Energia who are responsible for her construction. Astrotech is situated a few miles south of the shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center from which she’ll depart Earth.

NASA is launching ‘Rassvet’, formally known as the Mini Research Module-1, or MRM 1, as part of a complex barter agreement among the partner nations of the ISS to share the costs of assembling and operating the massive orbiting outpost.

MRM-1 will be attached to the Earth- facing (nadir) port of the russian Zarya control module at the ISS. See diagram below showing location of MRM-1 and other components on the Russian Orbital Segment of the ISS.

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NASA

Last Shuttle Flight Jan. 2011

March 26th, 2010

From Florida Today

NASA will probably miss its goal to retire the shuttle fleet this year, with the final launch likely to slip to January 2011, the space agency’s inspector general reported Thursday.

But shuttle managers are hustling to meet the current flight schedule, and they expect to spend up to $54 million on overtime to try to meet the September schedule – far less than the $200 million a month they would need to sustain shuttle operations into 2011, the report found.

Four shuttle flights remain, under a retirement schedule set in 2004 after the Columbia disaster.

NASA officials initially said the final shuttle flight would take place by Sept. 30, 2010, and it remains on the launch schedule for Sept. 16. More recently in budget documents, they said it would take place by the end of 2010.

But in a 32-page report released Thursday, Inspector General Paul Martin said both estimates are unrealistic.

President Barack Obama’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget includes $600 million to cover flights through December. Flights beyond that would need additional funding.

“It is the intent of the (space shuttle program) to complete the manifest without any sacrifice to safety or mission success,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations, wrote in a letter responding to Martin’s report.

Originally, NASA’s inspector general had used projections that the final flight might not happen until next March.

“However, given that the last four shuttle flights all launched within the schedule margins, our analysis now predicts that the last of the four remaining shuttle flights will launch in January 2011,” Martin wrote in his report.

After the shuttle’s retirement, NASA plans to ferry people to the International Space Station aboard Russian rockets until the next American rocket is developed. Obama has proposed relying on commercial rockets to reach the space station when they become available.

His budget proposal would cancel NASA’s Constellation program to develop an Ares rocket. But many in Congress want the program to continue.

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Exploration

Opportunity Finds Something New

March 25th, 2010

An enhanced-color image of the Chocolate Hills rock on Mars shows a strange coating that one researcher has called a "blueberry sandwich." The coating appears blue in this picture due to the false-color effect, but the naked eye would see this scene in shades of rusty red. Chocolate Hills is about the size of a loaf of bread. Click on the picture for a larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornel
From MSNBC

NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity has found a Martian rock covered in weird material as its odometer hit a major milestone this week, with the long-lived robot completing equivalent to a half-marathon on the Red Planet.

Opportunity, now in its seventh year on Mars, found the odd Mars rock during the past six weeks studying investigating a crater called “Concepción.”

The crater is about 33 feet (10 meters) in diameter, with dark rays extending from it, as seen from orbit, which made it a target of interest for rover inspection because they suggest the crater is young.

The rover made the pit stop to investigate the crater on its long journey to the large crater Endeavour, which is still about 7 miles (12 kilometers) away. It was while Opportunity was at Concepción that the rover surpassed 12.43 miles (20 kilometers) of total driving, about the length of a half-marathon.

Opportunity has driven farther than any other wheeled robot to land on Mars. Its robotic twin Spirit, which landed in January 2004 just weeks ahead of Opportunity, has driven about 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers), while NASA’s Sojourner rover, a small robot that landed in 1997, could drive only about a third of a mile (about half a kilometer) from the Pathfinder base it landed with.

Mars rock oddity

With new software that allows Opportunity to photograph rocks and other aspects of the Martian terrain and decide for itself what is worth closer inspection, the rover took an up-close look at a few rocks ejected by the impact that created Concepción.

What Opportunity has seen are chunks of the same type of bedrock it has seen at hundreds of locations since landing in January 2004: soft, sulfate-rich sandstone holding harder peppercorn-size dark spheres like berries in a muffin. The little spheres, rich in iron, gained the nickname “blueberries.” But these rocks have some unusual twists as well.

“It was clear from the images that Opportunity took on the approach to Concepción that there was strange stuff on lots of the rocks near the crater,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for Opportunity and Spirit. “There’s dark, grayish material coating faces of the rocks and filling fractures in them. At least part of it is composed of blueberries jammed together as close as you could pack them. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Opportunity used tools on its robotic arm to examine this unusual material on a rock called “Chocolate Hills.” In some places, the layer of closely packed spheres lies between thinner, smoother layers.

“It looks like a blueberry sandwich,” said Matt Golombek, a rover science-team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

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NASA Projects 2010 to be Hottest Ever

March 25th, 2010

From the Washington Post

The headline to this post may surprise many Washingtonians who are still thawing out from the cold and historically snowy winter. However, not only does a new NASA draft analysis predict that 2010 will likely set a new global temperature record, but it also projects that it is “virtually certain” that a new 12-month running mean global temperature record will occur sometime this year.

Wait a second, you may say. That doesn’t make sense, given the relentless cold thus far in 2010 (at least until the past two weeks), not only in Washington, but also throughout Europe and parts of Asia.

So, where is this forecast coming from?

First, as I detailed last week, the winter of 2009-2010 wasn’t actually very cold from a global perspective. In fact, according to NOAA, the past winter (Dec.-Feb.) was the fifth warmest on record on a global basis.

Second, NASA’s projection, which is in the form of a lengthy and technical paper that is publicly available here, is based on a combination of recent observations and historical evidence. Part of the projection rests on the continued presence of a moderate El Niño, which is a natural climate event characterized by unusually warm water in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño has long been known to boost average global temperatures by warming the ocean and atmosphere. The all-time record warm year of 1998 (depending on whose statistics you cite) was a year that featured a strong El Niño, for example.

On the other hand, La Niña, which is marked by anomalously cool waters in the equatorial tropical Pacific, can lead to cooler global temperatures.

NASA’s temperature projection is based in part on the knowledge that global surface temperatures tend to lag behind El Niño by about four months. Since El Niño has continued to remain at a moderate strength, and global average temperatures are already running significantly warmer than average, it follows that there is a window of another several months of extra warming within which to set a new record.

You can think of El Niño as adding another few logs on a preexisting fire. Only in this analogy, human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels are also adding their own kindling at the same time.

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Exploration

Opportunity is Thinking

March 25th, 2010

From Discovery

Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity have surpassed their designed mission lifespan by an astonishing six years, but don’t let that fool you into thinking their mental capacity is suffering.

Far from it.

With help from the MER mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., our two tenacious robotic explorers are getting smarter with age.

But how can they be getting smarter? It’s not as if any of the hardware has changed; they can’t have more memory slotted into their USB ports (as they don’t have USB ports or a Radio Shack nearby).

Also, the Red Planet isn’t exactly a good host, throwing dust storms at the wheeled explorers, taxing their power supplies and, for Spirit, creating sand traps. Understandably, it’s not only their wheels, joints and solar panels are showing signs of attrition; their on-board computer systems are being pushed to the limit too.

The answer lies in the more sophisticated software beamed to the rovers so they can carry out more sophisticated tasks. And in the case of Opportunity, it’s now choosing which rocks it should study without consulting mission control.

Yes, in a manner of speaking, Opportunity is thinking for itself; the first space robot to select observation targets automatically.

After being upgraded, Opportunity’s computer can study photographs taken with its wide-angle navigation camera, scanning for rocks that fulfill pre-defined criteria. When a target has been found, the robot will take a series of images through different color filters with its narrower-angled panoramic camera.

It’s basically looking for strange-looking rocks (to scientists, “strange-looking” means “very interesting”), grabbing a closer look and then flagging them for further study. In the past, images had to be sent back to Earth to be studied by controllers before a decision could be made to do a follow-up study, often days later. Now these decisions are made ‘on the fly’ by the rover, cutting us humans out of the loop.

“We spent years developing this capability on research rovers in the Mars Yard here at JPL,” said Tara Estlin, rover driver and leader of the development group who developed this artificial intelligence (AI) software. “Six years ago, we never expected that we would get a chance to use it on Opportunity.”

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Augustine Committee

NASA Encounters More Questions Over Constellation’s Cancellation From House Panel

March 25th, 2010

President Obama’s proposal to cancel NASA’s Constellation Program encountered another round of stiff, bi-partisan opposition from a House oversight panel on Wednesday, as an agency official and an outside aerospace expert painted an uncertain picture of what will take the place of the six-year-old lunar exploration initiative.

In the nearly three hours of testimony, it was clear the space agency is still in the earliest stages of defining a new direction.

That was especially the case with the White House proposal to follow the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle later this year with a $6 billion initiative to foster a commercial space transportation industry to carry astronauts as well as cargo to the International Space Station. The spending plan has met opposition from Democrats as well as Republicans at hearings before House and Senate policy and appropriations committees since it was unveiled early last month.

Thomas Young, a retired Lockheed Martin executive who has advised the Pentagon as well as the space agency on major policy issues, urged the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee to reject the changes outlined in NASA’s 2011 budget proposal.

“I believe we are a long way from having a commercial industry capable of satisfying human space transportation needs,” Young told the panel. “In my view, this is a risk too high and not a responsible course. The commercial crew option should not be approved.”

He urged the panel to stick with the under funded and behind schedule Constellation Program. Constellation’s Ares 1 rocket and Orion crew exploration vehicle offer the most promising means of transporting astronauts to the space station and making journeys to the moon with the larger Ares V rocket, Young said.

Instead, the White House strategy would invest billions of dollars in a wide range of new technologies intended to lower the cost of future human space exploration. The new strategy calls for a flexible path that includes missions to asteroids, the moons of Mars and Mars as well as the Earth’s moon without establishing clear goals and times lines.

“A detailed exploration plan with destinations, dates and implementation plans is needed,” said Young. “A technology program without focus and identified mission uses can result in wasteful, nonproductive, hobby shop activities.”

All but one member of the House panel seemed to agree. Doug Cooke, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration, attempted but was unable to provide many of the specifics the lawmakers sought to answers about job losses, flight risks, financial terms and operational dates for a new fleet of commercial space taxis.

The cost of establishing Constellation in response to a directive from President Bush and then dismantling the initiative was estimated at $14 billion by the subcommittee. More than $9 billion has been spend so far on Ares 1 and Orion.

“We have very serious issues to address, the future of America’s human space flight program,” said U. S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who chairs the subcommittee. “The Congress and the President need to get this one right. The clock is ticking.”

The panel expressed hope Obama will address many of their questions during a space policy summit he plans to host at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on April 15.

“There are many questions to be asked and information yet to be provided about such a major re-direction,” said U. S. Rep. Pete Olson, of Texas, the panel’s ranking Republican. “Frankly, too many people are behaving like this is a fait accompli. That is far from the truth. There are still too many unknowns and too many issues that must be evaluated before Congress can make an informed decision.”

U. S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher found himself largely alone arguing the merits of the Obama plan, which the California Republican compared to past policies that awarded the fledgling airlines contracts to carry the mail in the early 20th century and offered land to expanding railroad companies in the 19th century.

“Today, we are on the verge of a huge step forward into space, where a huge number of people can be engaged in enterprise in space,” he complained. “And we have the argument instead that this must be a government-based operation.”

The president’s policy initiative followed a lengthy re-assessment of the Constellation Program last year by the Augustine Committee a panel of experts chartered by the White House. It found the program so under funded that it was more than a decade behind President Bush’s goal of reaching the moon with American explorers by 2020. It urged the Obama administration to consider an annual increase of $3 billion in NASA’s budget in order to establish sustained global lead in future human exploration.

U. S. Rep. Donna Edwards, a Maryland Democrat, seemed to express the sentiments of many colleagues Wednesday, when she urged NASA not to move too quickly in the dismantling of Constellation.

“This is a work in progress,” said Edwards.

 

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